In case you haven’t heard, spaced repetition is a thing. A very efficient thing. The Anki Manual says this about the discovery of spaced repetition:1

This was a revolution in learning, as it meant material could be learnt and retained with the absolute minimum amount of effort necessary.

So spaced repetition (or SR) is a highly effective method of remembering information, and Anki is the most popular spaced repetition software (or SRS). At its heart, Anki is just a program for making and displaying flashcards, but the flashcards are shown to you on a schedule – ideally, close to the same day as you would have forgotten the card, and no sooner. This means you can remember more information in less time than with traditional study methods.

There are many SRS programs but I use and recommend Anki because it’s simple, available for all platforms, syncs easily, and has a lot of functionality available through plug-ins. It also has many shared decks (pre-made sets of flashcards) available; however, I have started to discourage people from downloading shared decks – read on to find out why.

Although this post is Anki-specific, a lot of the information will surely apply to other SRS programs as well. And while I’m primarily using Anki for language-learning, the basic principles that I’ll talk about are fairly universal.

Can we start the post or what?

Keep It Simple,

Stupid! Cards should be as simple as you can make them, containing only some core, atomic bit of information.

There are two main reasons you don’t want to complicate your cards:

  1. Anki is meant to be efficient. That is the entire reason you are using an SRS system as opposed to traditional study methods. If your studying isn’t efficient, you are wasting your time and missing the point. You should only spend a few seconds per card before moving on to the next card.
  2. Getting one small part of a complicated note wrong means you have to mark the whole thing wrong. There’s no alternative. When you get the card wrong, however slightly, you can’t just mark it “Okay” – you will be learning and reinforcing wrong information. That would be a misuse of Spaced Repetition, and you’d only be cheating yourself. To avoid this situation entirely, simply avoid cards with a lot of info. Short phrases and idioms are okay.

Have a sentence you’d like to learn? Break it up into clozes. Again, the problem with things like full sentences is the risk of getting a single word out of the whole thing wrong. Clozes work by occluding,2 or hiding, only the parts of a sentence that you need to memorize – and each occlusion will have its own separate card. Now you have an atomic bit of information to answer each time! You also get to see the information in its proper context as you study. It’s simple and it’s effective.

Have a list of things (all US states in alphabetical order)? Stop. Anki isn’t meant for that – really! I see people trying to shoehorn SRS systems for all kinds of purposes, thinking that since it’s efficient, it can be used for everything, and in the process actually making their studying wildly inefficient and wasteful. I think Anki is simply the wrong tool for lists most of the time. Methods such as the memory palace seem more appropriate here.

A lot of shared decks in particular get this simplicity thing wrong, which is part of the reason you should…

Avoid Shared Decks

Shared decks are pre-made sets of cards that are available to download on Anki’s website. They are evil. Pure evil.

  1. You will be learning things out of context. It is crucial to study information only after encountering it out in the wild. For example, I tried learning that the Polish word for magpie is sroka. Trouble is, I had no idea what a magpie looked like, and could never memorize the word sroka. After seeing one in the wild, I was able to memorize the word instantly.3
  2. The card quality is generally quite low. A lot of shared decks I’ve seen pack a lot of information into each card, in the mistaken notion that this improves the quality of the cards – it does not. These are low-quality cards. We’ve already talked about how cards should be simple, so you should know that you do not want this extraneous information when studying.
  3. Another way in which shared decks tend to be low quality is that many cards are simply, well, wrong. I’ve noticed this in a lot of separate shared decks. Now, if you make your own cards you’re also liable to end up with some inaccurate cards, which is dangerous because you will very efficiently learn… the wrong thing. Still, if you make your own cards based on something you’ve already learned (i.e. with the proper context), you’ll be easier able to spot if what you’re learning isn’t right. If you learn from a shared deck without this context, you’d have no idea. As a result of blindly learning from shared decks I still have some wrong bits of information stuck in my brain, like candy wrappers under the sofa. Learn from my mistakes.

That’s what’s bad about shared decks – so what’s good about making your own decks? Well, making your own cards will help you remember them. I can’t prove that, but it’s pretty common sense. It’s a lot like note-taking – in addition to preserving knowledge for later, the act of writing itself helps you learn.

Apart from that, designing your own notes will force you to be selective in what information you choose to learn. Adding cards takes time, and that’s a good thing. It’s way too easy to download a deck and start learning thousands of notes, but it’s a big mistake, because you should…

Be Frugal With Cards

It’s tempting to get overexcited when starting out with Anki and add hundreds of cards about every little thing. But remember, each card that you add costs you time, time which adds up over the long term across many reviews. It’s easy to add a lot of cards when you are new to Anki and have a blank slate, but when you wind up with hundreds of cards scheduled each day, you get a lot more picky about what info you want to learn. I made this mistake early on and I delete cards more often than I add them now. Choose your cards carefully.

Take Care When Reversing Cards

Most of you already know the importance of studying cards both ways. If you want to learn the Italian word mela, for example, it’s not enough to have a card la mela -> the apple; you need to be able to produce the Italian word given the English word, as well. Most language learners have realized this, especially those that only learned one way and found that they could understand a language, but not speak it themselves.

The temptation is to automate the process of creating reversed cards and Anki makes it easy for you: you just have to select the “Basic (and reversed card)” note type when adding a new note. However, I’ve run into a lot of problems with this in the past. The word whip, for example, can translate into two different words in Polish: bicz or bat. Either answer is correct, so going from English to Polish I can have a card whip -> bicz, bat. However, I don’t want to reverse that and have bicz, bat -> whip, because here I’m only required to remember one of the words and not both. I can guess what bicz means if I know bat. So it’s better to have two cards here: bicz -> whip, and bat -> whip.

Of course, it takes more work to do things this way, but that’s fine. Making cards shouldn’t be seen as a waste of time as it helps you to learn. By deciding that a piece of information is important it primes your brain to learn it, and then your brain has to work to formulate a structure for this bit of knowledge, in the form of a note.

One thing you do miss, though, is that making cards separately results in them not being related, as they would be if they were generated from the same note (i.e. a “Basic (and reversed card)” note). Related cards are not shown on the same day, as you’d presumably still have the answer from the first related card fresh in your head when seeing subsequent ones. I don’t know of a good solution to this other than manually burying subsequent cards that display the same information – burying reschedules a card for the next day. A handy shortcut for this is the - key.

Uze Clozes Liberally

I already mentioned clozes when talking about why you should keep your cards simple. One great use for them is definitely to minimize the amount of information per note. Here are a few more reasons you should use them:

  1. Clozes give context. It’s more effective to learn a word in the context of how it’d be used in real life. Pasame [...](the apple) is a better way of learning la manzana than the apple -> la manzana.
  2. Clozes can help distinguish between subtle differences, e.g. for learning when to use different synonyms.
  3. Clozes are also great for learning words that don’t make sense on their own, such as prepositions. These pretty much require a context to learn them in.

Use The Speed Focus Mode Add-On

As I’ve mentioned already, you should be going through cards quick. That’s the whole point of an efficient study system. In order to guarantee you don’t spend too much time on a single card, use the Speed Focus Mode add-on. I set it up so that I get an alert after five seconds on one card, and it auto-reveals the answer after eight seconds. If I couldn’t get the answer by the time it’s revealed, then I simply didn’t know it well enough and I mark it Wrong. The reason I set such high times is that many of my cards are, unfortunately, not very optimized for simplicity (see above). I’m slowly optimizing my cards, but I have thousands of them. Ideally I wouldn’t ever spend more than three or four seconds on one card.

Get Comfortable With The Hotkeys

Anki has hotkeys to make your studying faster, so make good use of them! You can read about them in the Anki manual. My favorites are hitting B to bring up the browser and A to add a card. I also use the Right-Hand Reviews add-on which adds a few more hotkeys for studying with the right-hand, as well as the Answer Key Cascade add-on which makes the answer keys more ergonomic to use (and is compatible with Right-Hand Reviews).

It’s always great when a program is super-user friendly (and Anki is worth being a super-user of).

Conclusion

I hope that some of these tips have been useful for you. If you follow even just a few you will be able to learn more in less time, which is what Anki is all about.

I’ll end with a final tip, the biggest tip I can give, which is just a reminder of what every Anki user should already know: do your scheduled cards every day! The algorithm works most efficiently when following the schedule. If you skip days, you’re making it harder for yourself. I should know: this is my biggest struggle with Anki. It’s just hard to find the time sometimes, you know?

Questions? Adulations? Provocations? Leave a communication in the commentations.

Footnotes

  1. Please read the excellent manual for more information about Anki and Spaced Repetition than I can fit in a quick introduction. 

  2. There’s a new word for ya. Thanks, Anki manual! 

  3. Now, if you are, say, taking a course and someone provided a shared deck as supplemental content, there’s generally no problem in saving some time and using that deck, provided it is high quality. You will have the context necessary from the course itself.